Italy’s Snap Election Could Hand Putin the Win He Needs

Outspoken supporters of Russia are likely to play key roles in the next government.

Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi, Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni, and then-League leader Matteo Salvini participate in a rally of right-wing opposition parties in Rome on Oct. 19, 2019.
Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi, Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni, and then-League leader Matteo Salvini participate in a rally of right-wing opposition parties in Rome on Oct. 19, 2019.
Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi, Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni, and then-League leader Matteo Salvini participate in a rally of right-wing opposition parties in Rome on Oct. 19, 2019. Ivan Romano/Getty Images

In snap elections on Sept. 25 following last month’s resignation of Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, Italians are likely to vote a right-wing political coalition into power. That outcome would have effects far beyond Italy, especially given the pro-Russian slant of some in the coalition. The United States and other European partners should be concerned—and will need to develop a strategy to keep Italy firmly anchored in the trans-Atlantic partnership. An obvious first step is for Washington to finally appoint a U.S. ambassador to Italy, a position vacant for over one and a half years. The United States also should develop a comprehensive strategy to combat Russia’s influence in Italy. This is especially important in light of allegations about Russian interference in Italy’s politics, dark money in Italy, and disinformation campaigns. If a right-wing coalition took power in Rome, Moscow would see an additional opening. With the geopolitical stakes so high, strong U.S. engagement with Italy could help tilt the balance.

For decades, Italy has been a stalwart partner of the United States. A champion of NATO, Italy has provided significant military equipment to Ukraine as it fights to stave off Russia’s invasion, hosts six U.S. military installations including the 6th Fleet, is the second-largest troop contributor to NATO’s out-of-area missions, manufactures the F-35 fighter jet, and is a key security actor in the eastern and southern Mediterranean. What raises concern now are the three leaders of this hard-right coalition: While one professes a commitment to NATO, two are outspoken and longtime supporters of Russia.

Narrowly leading in the polls is the far-right political party Brothers of Italy. The party is the latest incarnation of Italian right-wing politics in a long line of parties that goes back to the Italian Social Movement, founded by neofascists after World War II. Brothers of Italy is more like a post-fascist party; in the European Parliament, it is part of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group. The head of the party, Giorgia Meloni, has presented herself as conservative populist along the lines of Hungarian President Viktor Orban, whom she has said she admires. Meloni is in alliance with Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right League party, and Silvio Berlusconi, a former prime minister and head of the conservative Forza Italia. The combined coalition is likely to get 45 percent or more of the vote, enough to take control of Parliament and determine the government.

In snap elections on Sept. 25 following last month’s resignation of Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, Italians are likely to vote a right-wing political coalition into power. That outcome would have effects far beyond Italy, especially given the pro-Russian slant of some in the coalition. The United States and other European partners should be concerned—and will need to develop a strategy to keep Italy firmly anchored in the trans-Atlantic partnership. An obvious first step is for Washington to finally appoint a U.S. ambassador to Italy, a position vacant for over one and a half years. The United States also should develop a comprehensive strategy to combat Russia’s influence in Italy. This is especially important in light of allegations about Russian interference in Italy’s politics, dark money in Italy, and disinformation campaigns. If a right-wing coalition took power in Rome, Moscow would see an additional opening. With the geopolitical stakes so high, strong U.S. engagement with Italy could help tilt the balance.

For decades, Italy has been a stalwart partner of the United States. A champion of NATO, Italy has provided significant military equipment to Ukraine as it fights to stave off Russia’s invasion, hosts six U.S. military installations including the 6th Fleet, is the second-largest troop contributor to NATO’s out-of-area missions, manufactures the F-35 fighter jet, and is a key security actor in the eastern and southern Mediterranean. What raises concern now are the three leaders of this hard-right coalition: While one professes a commitment to NATO, two are outspoken and longtime supporters of Russia.

Narrowly leading in the polls is the far-right political party Brothers of Italy. The party is the latest incarnation of Italian right-wing politics in a long line of parties that goes back to the Italian Social Movement, founded by neofascists after World War II. Brothers of Italy is more like a post-fascist party; in the European Parliament, it is part of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group. The head of the party, Giorgia Meloni, has presented herself as conservative populist along the lines of Hungarian President Viktor Orban, whom she has said she admires. Meloni is in alliance with Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right League party, and Silvio Berlusconi, a former prime minister and head of the conservative Forza Italia. The combined coalition is likely to get 45 percent or more of the vote, enough to take control of Parliament and determine the government.

The coalition has a mixed history regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin. Salvini has openly said that Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea was legitimate and praised Putin in 2019 as “one of the best statesmen currently on Earth.” He has worn a T-shirt emblazoned with Putin’s face and the words “Russian Army.” In 2017, Salvini signed an agreement between the League and Putin’s United Russia. For his part, Berlusconi has been an ardent supporter of Putin and a self-proclaimed friend in what has been widely described as a political “bromance.” When he was prime minster, for example, Berlusconi invited the Russian leader to his notorious sex parties. More recently, he gifted Putin with a king-size duvet cover emblazoned with a life-size image of the two men shaking hands. Both Salvini and Berlusconi have been exculpatory about Putin and his brutal war in Ukraine, and they have publicly criticized sanctions against Russia.

One of Putin’s key goals is to divide the EU on support to Ukraine and sanctions against Russia.

Unlike her prospective coalition partners, Meloni has repeatedly and harshly criticized Russia’s invasion and reaffirmed Italy’s commitment to Ukraine. In aftermath of Draghi’s resignation on July 21, Meloni made her views clear: “We have always defended and supported the Ukrainian cause, not just because we believe in the cause, but also because Italy cannot risk being the weak link in the Western alliance.” Her party voted for the membership of Finland and Sweden in NATO. Despite their leaders’ pro-Putin stances, so did the League and Forza Italia.

While Meloni’s proclamations and all three parties’ votes in support of Finland and Sweden might reassure U.S. officials, the broader coalition is traditionally anti-establishment, skeptical of the European Union, and anti-Atlanticist. As skilled a politician as Meloni is, she might struggle to control her own party, the rest of the coalition, and their supporters. Less than one-third of Italians support sending weapons to Kyiv, and more than one in five Italians have bought into the Russian propaganda narrative that NATO or Ukraine are to be blamed for the war. Salvini might decide to play the role of a spoiler, as Meloni’s rapid rise has come at his own political cost.

Without a committed pro-EU and pro-NATO leader like Draghi, Rome will likely face intense pressure from Moscow. Russia has already made significant inroads in Italy—which, along with Germany, is seen by Putin as the West’s weak link. Several Italian and international news outlets have written about Moscow’s suspected—though so far uncorroborated—pressure on the League to withdraw from the Draghi government. Rumors have swirled around Salvini since 2019, when an audio recording purportedly showed his party was pursuing Russian financing. (Salvini has denied the accusation.) The Italian Parliament has launched an investigation into Russian disinformation campaigns and the prominent platforms given to Russian officials in Italian newspapers and media, including those owned by Berlusconi.

One of Putin’s key goals is to divide the EU on support to Ukraine and sanctions against Russia. A first test for Italy’s likely new coalition would be Italian support for any new EU sanctions against Russian officials. With the United States levying a new round of sanctions against Russian elites, pressure will build on the EU to enact its eighth sanctions package in the coming months. Another test will be continued Italian arms deliveries to Ukraine.

Beyond the Ukraine conflict, it’s also unclear whether the new coalition government would authorize Italian participation in NATO missions, as previous Italian governments have done. In addition, would this government scrutinize and restrict U.S. military operations conducted from bases on Italian territory? These bases are strategically important for U.S. and NATO military operations in the Mediterranean, Africa, and Middle East. Indeed, when I was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Italy, Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily was critical in the 2014 evacuation of U.S. Embassy officials from Libya. More recently, the base was a hub for evacuations from Afghanistan.

The Biden administration should waste no time engaging and trying to influence this coalition if elected. One step is very overdue: There has not been a U.S. ambassador in Italy since the departure of the Trump administration’s envoy in January 2021. Today, Italy is the only G-7 country without a U.S. ambassador. Even if a candidate is nominated soon, months could pass before the required U.S. Senate hearing and confirmation. Pro-U.S. Italians have repeatedly expressed their disappointment and confusion to me about this long and inexplicable delay.

The United States needs to recognize the threat posed by Russian disinformation and propaganda in Italy and invest in specific public diplomacy for Italy, developing messaging about the importance of NATO, the threat from Russia, and authoritarianism in general. Italians should understand the corrosive effects of Russian disinformation and interference in their politics—a lesson many other countries are also in the process of learning. The challenge will be for Americans to insert themselves into the debate and get this messaging heard when Russians are a permanent fixture on Italian television. In addition, as a diplomat who spent years combatting Russian money laundering and dark money, I know the United States could do much more to highlight how Russians buy influence in Italy and elsewhere. Italians also need to understand how a soft approach to Russia in an era of heightened conflict could scare off U.S. companies from investing or expanding in Italy. With allegations that some Italian companies are already circumventing EU sanctions against Russia, corporate America will be wary of getting involved in sanctions-dodging, scrutinizing potential partners or avoiding them altogether.

Given the unpredictability of Italian politics, the formation of a right-wing coalition after next month’s election is not preordained. Anything can happen during the next seven weeks and the post-election scramble to form a government. However, the attitudes and opinions of the potential coalition parties—and of Italian voters who have fueled their momentum—should be of great concern to Washington. The Biden administration has done an extraordinary job revitalizing NATO and the trans-Atlantic partnership. Now it needs to shore up its relationship with one key partner, Italy, and with Italians. The United States and NATO cannot have Italy become the alliance’s weak link.

Kathleen Doherty is a former deputy assistant secretary of state for European Union affairs and former U.S. ambassador to Cyprus.

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